Copper letters, granite walls, concrete language

In his new memoir, 'Little Failure,' Gary Shteyngart captures the almost physical love of language that leads him to a career as a writer.

Gary Shteyngart has been a blip I've been watching on the edge of my radar screen for a while, and so when one of my local bookstores brought him to town the other day, I had to go hear him read from his new memoir, "Little Failure."

It's a book, he jokes in a promotional video, that he might have called "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Mensch."

Mr. Shteyngart was born in 1972 in what was then Leningrad in what was then the Soviet Union. He and his parents led a relatively privileged life, albeit in a 500-square-foot apartment. But illness kept him out of school and away from other children, like a young Robert Louis Stevenson transported to the Brezhnev era.

When a grain deal struck with President Jimmy Carter opened up new emigration opportunities for Russian Jews, Shteyngart's parents made the difficult decision to leave ailing relatives behind and opt for a new life with their young son in the New York borough of Queens. (If you're wondering about the curious spelling of his name, by the way, it's an English transliteration of a Russian transliteration of a German name meaning "stone garden.")

His life odyssey has given him the raw material for a number of novels, but now he has turned to memoir. Responding to the implicit criticism that it may be a little early for that, he responds that his current age of 41 "is like 67 in Soviet years."

His immigrant experience includes a hilarious episode when his family, newly arrived in Queens, receives one of those Publishers Clearing House letters advising that they "have already won" $10 million. They try to make sense of it with their "collective English vocabulary of 400 words."

But it's the "becoming a writer" story line that most caught my attention. Early on in the book, he captures his almost physical love of language.

"Words. I hunger for them even more than the MEAT and PRODUCE they claim to advertise. The Great and Mighty Russian Tongue is how my first language bills itself. Throughout its seventy-year tenure, bureaucratic Sovietspeak had inadvertently stripped the language of Pushkin of much of its greatness and might.... But in the late 1970s the beleaguered Russian tongue can still put on quite a show for a five-year-old boy in a Leningrad metro station. The trick is to use giant copper block letters nailed to a granite wall, signifying both pomp and posterity, an uppercase paean to an increasingly lowercase Soviet state."

He goes on to describe a series of, well, "inscriptions" isn't quite the right word; they sound more like installations. On the walls of the Technological Institute metro station, they commemorate various milestones of Soviet achievement, such as: "1959 – SOVIET SPACE ROCKET REACHES THE SURFACE OF THE MOON."

The metro, "with its wall-length murals of the broad-chested revolutionary working class that never was, with its hectares of marble vestibules," has little Igor, not yet Americanized into "Gary," in awe. "And the words! Those words whose power seems not only persuasive but, to a kid about to become obsessed with science fiction, they are indeed extraterrestrial. The wise aliens have landed and WE ARE THEM. And this is the language we use. The great and mighty Russian tongue."

He concludes: "I decide to become a writer. Who wouldn't, under the circumstances?"

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